Chamber Music Northwest review: quartets and quintets

Strings sing in performances of European classics for string quartet and quintet

by TERRY ROSS

What a feast Chamber Music Northwest has brought us in its 2017 Summer Festival! In string quartets alone, the festival has featured since the July 6 concert the the Emersons, the Brentanos, and the Dovers. For other instrumental combinations you can add the Claremont Trio (violin, cello, and piano) and Imani Winds. And that doesn’t count the many other superb musicians whom Music Director David Shifrin has gathered to make chamber music, sometimes on a grand scale.

Rebecca Anderson and Andrea Lam performed Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The July 19 and July 22 concerts were a smorgasbord of strings, with the notable exception of a pianist from the Claremont Trio. The Kreutzer Connection July 19 concert in Alberta Rose Theatre presented three pieces connected closely or loosely with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, Op. 47, No. 9, called the Kreutzer after its dedicatee Rodolphe Kreutzer, considered one of the best violinists of his time. Like so many of Beethoven’s compositions, this sonata changed the genre for all time. No previous piece for these two instruments had dealt out the music so equally, or made their collaboration so prominent. One of CMNW’s group of freelance musicians, violinist Rebecca Anderson, took on the challenging string part, and the Claremont Trio’s Andrea Lam tackled Beethoven’s piano score.

This is some of the most difficult piano music Beethoven ever wrote — more difficult than almost all 32 of the sonatas, and on a par with the hardest parts of the piano concertos. Ms. Lam was, in a word, fabulous, handing in what may have been the best piano playing of the entire festival in conquering this ferocious score.

Unfortunately, Ms. Anderson was not entirely up to the challenge, especially in the sonata’s first movement. Her playing, although accurate in all ways, was overly subtle in its phrasing, and the Kreutzer Sonata is not the most subtle of Beethoven’s music. Her volume seldom achieved parity with that of the grand piano, which was open wide, as it should be. This couldn’t be chalked up to the room’s acoustic, because two other violinists in subsequent pieces produced a greater volume.

The Calidore Quartet — violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi — ended the first half with Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” from 1923. Janacek tied his piece closely to Tolstoy’s tale, giving us lugubrious and nervous music full of dissonances and abrupt accents in the first two of four movements before erupting into violence in the third, where a dialogue between first violin and cello is repeatedly interrupted by rude explosions by the second violin and viola. The final movement is full of passion and rage before subsiding into the quiet and silence of death, as in the Tolstoy story. The Calidores gave Janacek’s spiky composition an appropriately emotional and physical reading, holding nothing back in their depiction of jealousy, passion, and murder.

The Calidore String Quartet performed Janáček’s “Kreutzer” Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The Kreutzer theme of the program made its way, sort of, into the concert’s final piece by way of Beethoven. Felix Mendelssohn didn’t refer to the Kreutzer Sonata in his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 13, but he did refer to Beethoven, specifically the late string quartets, which Mendelssohn had studied closely. Written at the age of 18 in the same year that Beethoven died (1827), Mendelssohn’s quartet was hardly his first major piece of chamber music. He had earlier written his Octet, his String Quintet, and three piano quartets.

In this quartet, Mendelssohn broke with tradition by using a cyclic form of composition, in which a given theme occurs as a unifying element in a number of movements. The theme in this case is a song Mendelssohn had written (earlier in his adolescence!) called “Frage” (“question”), and bits of it turn up in the first and last movements, with hints of its mood in the other two movements. Elsewhere, Mendelssohn acknowledges his admiration for Beethoven; in the second movement, he quotes the master’s 11th Quartet (the last one before the final , and in his general treatment of themes, he seems to have known at least Beethoven’s Opus 127 and Opus 130, written only two years earlier.

Running over half an hour, Mendelssohn’s piece is characteristically generous in its themes and proportions, and the Calidores played it lovingly, relishing its early Romantic harmonies and melodies as if it were an old friend. Even if it had little to do with the Kreutzer story, its connection with Beethoven made it a very welcome concert closer.

Quality Quintets

Three nights later, on July 22 in Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, it was the Brentano String Quartet’s turn to take the spotlight, adding violist Hsin-Yun Huang to their lineup for a program of three celebrated string quintets.

Mozart’s String Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 614 is the last of the composer’s six pieces in this genre, written in 1791, the year Mozart died. Its cheerful, frothy mood makes it appropriate for a concert opener, and the Brentanos — violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee, along with Ms. Huang — used a light touch to bring out its strengths. In the first-movement Allegro, once the viola’s horn-like opening theme had come and gone, their attention to trills and a gentle gait set the tone for the following Andante and its dancelike tune with elegant grace notes. After deftly turning the third-movement Menuetto into a graceful waltz, all five players broke into joyous and energetic polyphony in the midst of the final movement.

Hsin-Yun Huang 黃心芸 joined the Brentano Quartet in quintets by Mozart, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88 of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is a different sort of animal altogether from the Mozart, although it is similarly high-spirited, or at least energetic. Where Mozart’s writing is a model of clarity and of getting the maximum of music from the fewest resources, Brahms’s quintet reveals a thick, packed texture in all three movements, whether fast or slow. The augmented Brentanos got in the mood immediately in the opening movement, which calls for all the players to stay mostly in first or second position, in which they play close to the top nut, just below the tuning pegs. This produces a low-pitched overall sound, creating an introspective mood, which leads perfectly into the second movement Grave ed appassionato (“serious and passionate”), with its origins in baroque dance forms. The Brentanos-plus then blew the lid off in the closing Allegro energetico, earning a noisy repeat curtain call.

After the intermission, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2, Op. 87 was, although hardly needed, an antidote to Brahms’s piece. Written in 1844 but not as fully revised as the composer wished at his death in 1847, it is nevertheless vintage Mendelssohn. Although he wrote as if for an orchestra, the textures throughout are light, Mozartean. The second-movement Adagio e lento (“really slow and slow”) is particularly delicate, ending in an exquisite little pizzicato passage, and the quintet played it beautifully before jumping suddenly (attaca) into the contrapuntal fourth movement, always verging on full-blown fugue.

This quintet is perhaps the only composition Mendelssohn left us from the last few years of his life that equals the productions of his teens and twenties. And that is a very high standard indeed. Praise to the Brentanos (and Ms. Huang) for doing it justice and for an intriguing concert.

Recommended recordings

• Beethoven
Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-10 (Complete), Renaud Capuçon, violin & Frank Braley, piano (Erato 6420010), 2010.

• Janácek
Janacek: String Quartets, Mandelring Quartet (Audite AUDITE92545), 2010.

• Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2
Hausmusik (Virgin Veritas 5 45104 2), 1993.

• Mozart
Mozart: The String Quintets, Amadeus Quartet with violist Cecil Aronowitz (Deutsche Grammophon B0004027-02), 1968.

• Brahms
Brahms: String Quintets, Takács Quartet with violist Lawrence Power (Hyperion CDA67900), 2014.

 • Mendelssohn String Quintet
Mendelssohn String Quartet with violist Robert Mann (BIS BIS-SACD-1254), 2003.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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